Last night the 2019 Golden Globes kicked off and all of Hollywood celebrated last years blockbuster successes. Netflix was ahead of the game with originals ‘Roma’ and ‘The Kominsky Method’ both winning some of the most coveted awards. And while there was a wonderful amount of diversity thanks to titles like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, 2018 saw many tense political moments both within Hollywood and beyond. So, it is no wonder that many who won awards took their moment in front of the microphone to spread awareness. Female winners, in particular, made a call for equality. Regina King promised to support women within filmmaking by hiring “50 percent” females for each project she produces over the next two year period while Glenn Close made sure to implore women “to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams.”
Although, perhaps, the Golden Globes doesn’t exactly scream “tattoo culture”, Hollywood has had its fair share of media to add to the archives of tattoo history. But considering that mainstream movies are made for a large audience, it’s always interesting to take note of how films project ideas about tattooed individuals. Film has often been seen as a mirror for society, however accurate or inaccurate. It is also a medium that easily spreads information, ideas, and abstract concepts easily through many different venues, which is why it is so often used in conjunction with propaganda. So, how has Hollywood perpetuated ideas about tattoo culture and history?
The most notable of old Hollywood classics known for their aspects of tattoo tidbits are films like ‘Papillon’, ‘The Illustrated Man’, ‘The Rose Tattoo’, and ‘The Night of the Hunter’. Based on short stories by Ray Bradbury, ‘The Illustrated Man’ is science fiction meets fantasy; the tattoos, or skin illustrations as the character insists they are referred to, depict the future. The film was considered a major flop, but was later noted for upholding facets of 1960’s counterculture like tattoos, traveling, and philosophies. ‘The Rose Tattoo’ is a romantic drama by Tennessee Williams. The ink that the film is named for is used as a symbol for love, devotion, and memorial, much like today. But perhaps the most important culturally effective films are ‘Papillon’ and ‘The Night of the Hunter’. Both of the main characters in these pieces have tattoos, and while Papillon is not guilty of the murder that lands him in jail, lead character and hunter, Reverend Harry Powell certainly is.
It’s important to note that both ‘Papillon’ and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ concern themselves greatly with prison culture, and that the leads in both films aren’t “respectable” by societal standards in any way, shape, or form. This is not an accident, nor is it by any means inaccurate. For much of the Western world, tattoos were indeed worn by those who were the underdogs of society, so it makes sense that they would be presented as such in film. This kind of representation would continue with films like ‘Cape Fear’, ‘Eastern Promises’, and ‘American History X’. All of the lead characters either spend time behind in bars within the movie or have a history of such. Both ‘Eastern Promises’ and ‘American History X’ involve crime families, gangs, as part of their plot, and use tattoos as symbols to signify affiliation. Viggo Mortensen’s character is dotted with ink icons of Russian prisons, while Edward Norton has a large swastika tattoo on his chest.
Beyond the use of tattoos to indicate gang affiliation or prison time spent, most characters who sport tattoos in Hollywood movies tend to be of the same ilk: bad asses who wield guns on the regular. Whether to save lives, or to take them in cold blood, assassin's tend to be the next most popular crowd in film to be decorated with ink. In ‘Constantine’ Keanu Reeves is a suicide survivor who hunts demons in an attempt to buy a ticket to heaven, while in ‘A Place Beyond the Pines’ Ryan Gosling turns to robbing banks in hopes of raising enough cash to care for his lover and their newborn baby. In ‘Memento’ Guy Pearce is an amnesiac searching for the man who murdered his wife, and in ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Lisbeth Salander, a survivor of a traumatic past and present, is a highly intelligent hacker, who frequently uses violence to attack truly awful people. So, what do these all have in common? Again, regardless of their legal status, or which side of right and wrong they abide by, each of these characters could easily be considered incredibly strong, risk taking individuals who live life on a precipice edge.
If the characters aren’t ruthless killers or tomb raiders, then Hollywood usually uses tattoos for comedic relief or to denote an idiotic individual. Blockbuster comedies like ‘The Hangover II’, ‘We’re the Millers’ and ‘Bridesmaids’ all use tattoos to illicite big laughs. Ed Helms gets a makeover with a Mike Tyson-esque face piece during another alcohol induced Hangover blackout, while Casey Millers’ ridiculous boyfriend proudly wears the viral “No Ragerts” chest piece, and Rebel Wilson pokes fun at appropriating vacation tattoos in ‘Bridesmaids’ with a horribly infected “Mexican drinking worm”. In the flick ‘Why Him?’ James Franco celebrates his brand new family by getting their holiday card tattooed on his back, and although his lack of filter, awareness of appropriate personal space, and obvious love for risky behaviour is all made okay by the fact that he’s an extremely wealthy app creator, it’s stuff like this that perpetuates the idea that those who get tattooed have questionable personalities and make questionable choices.